Football: Robson out to ruin Old Trafford party

A former United hero is hoping to upset the champions-elect today.
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The Independent Online
Anyone looking around Old Trafford this morning, seeing the queues at the Megastore, the vertiginous North Stand and the trays of smoked salmon heading for the executive boxes could be forgiven for thinking, as the champions-elect run out to the acclaim of a packed house, that money buys success.

Then watch the opposition run out and check their place in the Premiership table. Middlesbrough may have cost more than pounds 20m to construct, they may have Brazilians, Italians, Danes and Australians, but they do not have enough points.

Manchester United won the title last year at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium. Victory over the same opponents this lunch-time will put them within a point of retaining the crown. It will also push Middlesbrouigh closer to relegation.

One man, in particular, will endure mixed feelings. Bryan Robson has many happy memories of Old Trafford and was pleased in defeat to see United claim the title last year. Today will be different. Another United success would be bittersweet indeed.

"Old Trafford is a great stadium," Robson said after Saturday's defeat of Aston Villa. "The atmosphere will be electric. It's a stage for our big-name players and everybody will be looking at them. I hope they can stand up and respond. In saying that, they can't do it themselves. The other lads have to respond as well."

For the more journeymen players the incentives are obvious: fear of relegation and the need to keep your place for the FA Cup final. Yet however well the outfield players perform, Boro have a problem in goal where Ben Roberts, himself suffering from an elbow injury, is having to play because Mark Schwarzer has a more serious calf problem and Gary Walsh and Ben Cole are also out.

In addition both Nigel Pearson (groin) and Gianluca Festa (who ran into a post and hurt his ankle on Saturday) are doubtful for today's game. Pearson's influence was evident in Boro's last visit to Old Trafford. As he watched helplessly from the sidelines, Chesterfield scored three times (four if David Elleray had had better eyesight). When he was restored for the replay, the Second Division side were blanked out.

United, by contrast, are able to juggle their resources. They were able to keep David Beckham on the bench on Saturday, and Alex Ferguson said: "I'll freshen the team up for Monday. I can bring in Karel Poborsky, Denis Irwin, Ronny Johnsen and Brian McClair." This may, however, work the other way. As Sunderland discovered in March, United's performances when reshaped have not been entirely convincing.

Robson added that he "would like to have seen United win the title on Saturday so that the pressure would have been off them and some of their lads might have been celebrating. That's not the case and United will be up for it, to try and win the title. It's going to be hard again. On the other hand, pressure and tension affects players in different ways. At least United will also be under pressure to beat us to win the title."

It seems strange to think that little more than a year ago Robson was being tipped as the next England coach. He was also being talked about as a successor to Ferguson. Now it seems he has absorbed more from his other mentor, Ron Atkinson.

It could be that Atkinson, in his capacity as Coventry's director of football, and Robson will be relegated together. If that happens it will be because they have made the same mistakes in team-building. While Ferguson, in constructing United, paid heed to the foundations - Viv Anderson, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Jim Leighton all joined in his first three seasons - Robson has often followed Atkinson's penchant for doing the decorating while the house is half-built.

Juninho, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Mikkel Beck, Emerson and the departed Nick Barmby and Branco all arrived before, belatedly, he signed Festa to give Pearson a consistent partner and Schwarzer to keep a safe goal. A better defensive structure was created and suddenly Ravanelli did not have to score twice for a draw. Juninho may be in outstanding form but Boro's revival is built on defence. They have conceded eight goals in their last nine League matches after shipping 48 in the previous 26. Five of those games have been won and two lost.

Ferguson, of course, had longer to build and did not start from such a low base. Three years after he took over, his position was perceived, outside the club, as being under threat. The 1990 FA Cup win bought him time, gave the team confidence and, with Irwin, Peter Schmeichel, Eric Cantona and Andrei Kanchelskis added, United finally won that elusive first title since 1967. Now, even if Liverpool win at Wimbledon on Tuesday and Sheffield Wednesday on Sunday, United require just four points from three home games, starting today, for their fourth title in five years.

Robson was instantly successful. He won promotion to the Premiership in his first season - having invested well in a goalkeeper, Alan Miller and defenders Neil Cox, Pearson and Clayton Blackmore. He also had himself to call on in midfield. Then, with the Riverside built, Steve Gibson was able to increase his commitment and in came the exotic.

In fairness, Robson's defence were outstanding in their opening months in the Premiership, and did not appear to need strengthening. Then they suffered injuries, lost goals and confidence and were never the same.

Now, cruelly, just as he seems to have got the defence right, its core components - Pearson, Festa and Schwarzer - are injured. "We can do it," Robson said. "It does not have to be in the United game. We need something out of it but we have Blackburn and Leeds to come. It's in our own hands."

Yet even if Boro beat both they will still need other results to go their way if they lose today. Survival would turn a traumatic season into a triumph. Away from the travails of the Premiership Boro have reached both the FA Cup and Coca-Cola finals for the first time in their history. Failure and even winning a first trophy in 121 years on Saturday week will not dispel the gloom.